© Reuters. Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo salute as they meet members of the media behind a glass wall ahead of the Shenzhou-12 mission to build China’s space station, at the Satellite Launch Center. Jiuquan near Jiuquan, Gansu province, China J
By Carlos García and Shubing Wang
JIUQUAN, China (Reuters) – China will send three astronauts into orbit on Thursday on a high-risk mission, the first of four manned space flights to complete the country’s space station by the end of next year.
China will put Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo into orbit aboard the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft at 9:22 am (0122 GMT) on June 17 from Jiuquan, in the northwestern province of Gansu.
Never, 56, a former air force pilot, will be the oldest Chinese astronaut to go into space.
Shenzhou-12, which means “Divine Ship,” is the third of 11 missions required to build China’s space station. Construction began in April with the launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of the three modules.
The Shenzhou-12 crew will live in Tianhe, which means “Harmony of the Skies,” a cylinder 16.6 m (55 ft) long and 4.2 m (14 ft) in diameter.
The three-month stay for Nie, Liu and Tang will be the longest for any Chinese astronaut, and a focus will be on how the men manage their relatively long time in orbit.
“The (mission) is longer this time, and we not only have to set up the central module, this ‘house’ in space, we have to carry out a series of fundamental technical tests,” Nie told reporters in Jiuquan.
“This mission is more difficult and the challenges are greater.”
Shenzhou-12 will be Nie’s third space outing, the second for Liu, 54, and the first for Tang, 45.
On Liu’s Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, his first, he almost failed to conduct a spacewalk to plant the Chinese flag on the outside of the spacecraft.
Liu, with the help of another astronaut, used a crowbar to open the hatch after he refused to move.
“We experienced some dangerous situations and encountered some difficulties in that mission,” Liu said on Wednesday.
“The amount of time spent outside the cockpit on this mission is much longer, and there will be many rounds of extravehicular activity. The mission has become extremely complex and difficult.”
Chinese astronauts have had a comparatively low international profile.
US law prohibits NASA from cooperating with China, and Chinese astronauts have not been to the International Space Station (ISS) for more than two decades, which has been visited by more than 240 men and women of various nationalities.
The ISS may be decommissioned in 2024 if the project does not receive new funding, and China could end up being the operator of the only space station in Earth’s orbit.
“After the completion of the Chinese space station, in the near future, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts jointly participate in the flight of the Chinese space station,” Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency, told reporters. . in Jiuquan.
China’s space launches attracted intense international attention last month after the debris from the rocket that carried the Tianhe module into space returned to Earth without an official forecast of its intended landing location until literally the final minutes.
“We are ready to carry out more extensive international exchanges and cooperation with other countries on the issue of debris from spacecraft and in space,” Ji said.
The backup astronauts for Thursday’s mission are Zhai Zhigang, 54, Wang Yaping, 41, and Ye Guangfu, 40.
China’s last crewed flight mission was in 2016 when two men, Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng, were sent via the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to Tiangong-2, a prototype of the space station where they later stayed for about one month.